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Title: Little Tales of The Desert

Author: Ethel Twycross Foster

Illustrator: Hernando G. Villa

Release Date: December 15, 2009 [EBook #30686]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


Produced by David Edwards, Emmy and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive)

[Illustration: LITTLE TALES OF THE DESERT Cover]




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          LOS ANGELES


    TRADE RATS                     7
    THE DANGEROUS PET             13
    THE ROAD-RUNNER               17
    A STRANGE CAPTURE             19
    A DESERT MAY PARTY            21

[Illustration: _Christmas on the Desert_]



MARY was worried. To-morrow would be Christmas. Christmas! a day always
spent close to New York City, that place where Santa Claus obtained all
the contents of his wonderful pack. Here she was, out in the heart of
the great Arizona Desert. Her little head was sorely puzzled over many
things. Around her were sand, rocks and mountains; no snow, no ice, save
on the tops of the distant peaks. How was Santa to draw his gift-laden
sleigh over barren stretches of sage brush and sand? Besides, he surely
would be far too warm, with his heavy fur coat and cap, to say nothing
of the poor reindeer who could scarcely live in such a country.

Mary and her mother had joined her father at his mine, where they were
going to spend the winter, sleeping in a tent, eating in a tent, but
spending the remainder of the time out of doors, under the clear, blue
sky and breathing the sweet, pure air.

Mary enjoyed all these things and no troubled thought crossed her mind
until the approach of Christmas. She sought counsel with her mother, but
Mother merely looked wise and said "wait." Mothers, somehow, seem to
know all about these things and Mary had great confidence in hers, and
so she ceased to worry, but still she wondered.

Christmas Eve at last arrived and Mary with many misgivings retired
early, as children often do in order to hasten the coming of the day.
She slept well, but awoke just as the sun came peeping up from behind
the distant mountains.

She sat up on her cot very suddenly and rubbed her eyes. What was that
rapidly moving object coming over the brow of the nearest hill? She
hurried into her clothes and went out. As the speck came nearer it
began to take definite form. But how strange! What did it all mean? Mary
stood and stared with wide open eyes. Quickly it came nearer and nearer
and presently rolled over the nearest rise and swung up in front of the

Mary had seen many interesting sights during her short life of six
years, but never one so strange.

First came twelve little burros with harnesses nearly hidden by holly
berries, while behind was the queerest chariot that ever popped out of a
fairy tale. The wheels were covered with blue and yellow flowers and
above was an immense Spanish dagger with the center removed, and in its
place stood the same dear old Santa Claus, whom Mary had seen every year
of her life. Mary had never before seen him in his desert costume.
Instead of his warm fur coat, he wore a kakhi coat and trousers, with
high top boots, a bright red scarf around his neck and a wide sombrero
hat. Below the hat peeped out the same kindly, bright eyes above the
rosy cheeks and snowy white beard. Beside him, instead of the usual
evergreen tree, a large, queer, crooked limbed joshua tree, was
standing. It was literally laden with presents, and all was lighted up,
not with candles or wax tapers, but with the crimson blossoms of the
Spanish dagger. On every dagger point was hung a gift. There were grown
up presents for father and mother and the cook and the miners; and there
was a real doll with blue eyes and teeth, that said "Papa," and "Mama,"
and cried exactly like the dolls found in far away New York. There was a
tea set and a little kakhi suit. There was a cute little set of
furniture made from cactus burrs, to say nothing of the delicious cactus
candy, and other sweetmeats which must have come from a far away town.

Santa descended with a bow and a smile to all, distributed the gifts,
joined them for a moment at breakfast, for the dear old man works very
hard and gets hungry, and then with a cheery, "Merry Christmas to all,"
he was off again, leaving behind one of the little burros named Bepo,
for Mary's own use.

As he sped away over the sand toward the next camp, Mary gave a sigh and
turned to her mother with a happy laugh, saying, "I guess Santa looks
after the little girls and boys everywhere, doesn't he, Mamma?"


THE little clock struck twelve, all were sleeping soundly, the tent flap
was rolled away and a streak of moonlight stretched half across the

Mary and her mother lay on a bunk and beyond the partition one could
hear the even breathing of father and cousin Jack. All else was still
save the occasional cry of a night hawk or the far distant call of a

Slowly, cautiously, stealthily into this silence crept a tiny object.
Its sharp, black eyes flashed fire in the moonlight and in its small
mouth it carefully carried a cactus burr.

"Pst! Mary, did you hear something?" It was cousin Jack's hoarse whisper
that broke the silence and awakened Mary from a beautiful dream and her
eyes popped open wide. She snuggled closer to Mother and stared into the
moonlight. All she could hear was a funny, little scratching sound,
unlike any she had ever heard around camp, and she knew not what it
meant. None of her little animal friends made a noise like that.

Jack was out of bed, had lighted a candle and in his pajamas, was
searching under bunks, tables and chairs for the thing that had caused
the noise. Mary sat up in bed, in time to hear a swift, rustling sound
and see a small object dart out of the tent door. Jack knew it would do
no good to search outside so tumbled back into bed and once more all was


Next morning at breakfast all were wondering who the strange visitor
could have been, but soon the incident was forgotten. Toward noon, Mary
went to a vacant bunk where she kept her clothes, and picked up her new
doll. She removed its dress and looked about for a little, red, wool
gown, of which she was very fond, for the day was chilly and it looked
like rain. But the gown was gone, high and low she looked, but find it
she could not. At last, tired out with searching, she fell asleep, and
the pretty lost gown remained a mystery.

During the next few days strange things happened. On the day following
one of Dolly's stockings was gone, on the next, its mate; on the next a
pretty little velvet bonnet, and so on for a week. The strangest part of
it was that something or somebody was bringing in little sticks of wood
and cactus burrs and piling them up among the doll clothes.

At the end of the week, Jack decided to solve the mystery. He said he
was going to sit up all night and see what kind of a thing was coming
into the tent so regularly. He didn't do exactly what he intended to do,
for by ten o'clock his eyelids grew too heavy and he was fast asleep in
the vacant bunk which he had chosen for a hiding place.

Patter, patter, patter, something was coming. Jack awoke with a start of
expectation. There was no moon tonight, but he had left a candle burning
in a distant corner. It was all he could do to keep back a chuckle when
he saw a big gray rat dart across the floor with a good sized twig in
its mouth. Jack kept perfectly still and the little fellow, not even
seeing him, continued its way across the floor to the bunk on which sat
Jack beside the doll clothes. It clawed its way up the side of the bunk,
dropped the twig, then selected a soft, woolly skirt. Then it turned and
scampered away through the door and out into the sagebrush.

Jack gave a hearty laugh and at once awakened the whole family and told
them his story.

"Of course," said Father, "it was a trade rat. Why didn't we think of
that before? The hills are full of tiny holes where they burrow down and
build their nests."

"But what about the twig?" asked Jack.

"They always pay for what they take," was the unexpected reply, "they
are great fellows to steal both food and clothing, but they never take
anything without replacing it with a cactus burr, a twig, a chip of
wood, or something of the sort. They seem to think it wrong not to leave
something in place of what they take."

"But what did they do with all my dolly's clothes?" asked Mary, "surely
they can't wear them."

"Indeed no, my dear little girl," said Father, "but probably if you
could find their nest, you would see them busy at work lining it with
the soft, downy cloth in preparation for a family of little ones."

Mary talked and wondered about all these happenings, and you can imagine
her delight when big Joe came running up to camp one day and told her he
had found her rat's nest. The men had been digging on a little hill
preparing to build the foundation of an extra tent. The hill was covered
with rat holes and gopher holes, and Joe lifted up a shovel full of
adobe and underneath was a little cave all carefully lined with warm
clothing. On the soft bed lay mother rat and six tiny little fellows
with eyes just opened. They were peering around with a frightened look
and giving shrill little squeaks of dismay.

[Illustration: _Joshua Trees_ (_Mary and Bepo_)]



ONE bright Sunday morning Mary wandered away from camp alone. The fact
was she did not know what to do. At home she always attended church with
Father and Mother, but here the nearest church was eighty miles away, a
bit too far for a morning ride, you see. Father did not work Sunday, and
as it was about the only time he had to chat with Mother, Mary was for
the moment forgotten.

She followed along a little trail leading over a small hill east of
camp. Upon arriving at the top she noticed a clump of trees beyond, and
they looked so cool and shady that she trotted down the trail and sat
beneath them.

Now this was a dangerous thing to do, for she could no longer see home,
and there were many trails leading in all directions. A little girl of
six years could hardly be expected to remember the way back.

She was soon rested and decided to start for home. She was getting
hungry, too. A tiny hill rose from the clump of trees in every
direction, which one ought she to choose? She was not a child to be
daunted by a thing like this, so boldly started up the path she thought
led home. She climbed to the top, but no camp was in sight, no tents, no
horses, nothing to indicate the surroundings of those dear people that
she did want dreadfully to see, O! so quickly.

"Oh me, oh my, I guess I'm lost!" she cried with a little break in her
voice. "I hope there are no bears in these hills. Oh, why did I run
away, and where is my mamma?"

She ran back down the hill, throwing herself on the ground under the
trees while the great big tears chased down her rosy cheeks. "Can I help
you, little girl?" said a tiny voice near by, "you are getting your
pretty dress soiled and your hair will be full of sand."

"Oh, I didn't know rabbits could talk," and Mary's eyes grew big and
round with wonder. There before her stood a little cottontail perched
upon its haunches and blinking at her with its cute little pink eyes.

"Yes, we desert rabbits could always talk, didn't you know that? But,
where is your mamma and what are you doing out here alone?"

"I guess I'm lost," answered Mary, "but you live here, can't you find my

"No, dear little girl, I can't, and I will tell you why. Mr. Man with
many brothers and sisters lives in your home. Mr. Man has a gun and he
uses that gun to kill poor little rabbits like me. Don't you remember
eating some for dinner yesterday? Well, on that day several of our dear
little playfellows were killed. Now you see I don't care to be eaten, so
must not go near your home, even to show you the way."

Mary gave a little shudder, for she did remember eating rabbit for
dinner the day before and that she liked it, too; but she made a resolve
never to do so again.

"But I'll not desert you for all that," continued the strange friend.
"My home is close by and as you are but a wee bit of a girl and have no
gun, I'll take you there."

Mary was delighted. To visit a real rabbit village and to be taken there
by Mrs. Rabbit, herself, would be a strange adventure, indeed.

Mrs. Rabbit led the way down a narrow path worn by the little feet of
her numerous family. Mary trotted along behind when suddenly the rabbit
stood up, gave a jump and darted away into the bushes.

Mary, startled, looked up in surprise. There stood cousin Jack gazing
down at her with an amused twinkle in his eyes; why! she, herself, was
lying, her head pillowed on her chubby arms, directly under the shady
tree where she had thrown herself in despair but a few moments before.

"Well, little girl, what have you been dreaming about?" he asked.
"Mother is sure you are lost or eaten up by some of your wild friends."

At this, Mary stood up and looked around indignantly. "Did I really
dream about all those dreadful things Mrs. Cottontail told me?" she



MARY and Bepo, the burro, soon became fast friends. Few burros lead as
happy a life as being the constant playmate of a merry child. Bepo
seemed to appreciate this fact and loved Mary accordingly. Many a
prospecting trip did they take on their own account over the network of
trails leading from camp to the numerous shafts and tunnels of the mine.

You city children and even you country boys and girls would never dream
of all the delightful and interesting things they found. I suppose you
think of the desert as being a flat stretch of sand with nothing on it,
like the maps of the desert of Sahara, in Africa? I know I used to. But
indeed it is not so. Many strange forms of life exist, both plant and
animal, as we shall soon learn.

This particular morning as they started out, Mary noticed that the
ground was covered with cactus burrs. Did you ever see a cactus burr?
They are similar to those you find in the country, but larger, with
pointed daggers sticking out in all directions, and they grow on a
crooked, prickly stalk or spine in the most comical way imaginable. As
they ambled along they discovered more and yet more of them. Mary, being
an inquisitive child, jumped down from Bepo's back for a closer
inspection of the strange things. Then she discovered a queer thing. She
had seen lots of burrs before but these were different. All the sharp
daggers had been removed, the burrs had been split open and the soft
centers taken out.

Mary looked all around, who could have done it? No man could have opened
all those burrs, it would have taken him weeks. He would have pricked
his fingers many times and often besides.

Then she heard a faint rustling in the bushes near by. Softly she
tiptoed behind a clump of sagebrush and peeked over. There was a little
rabbit nibbling away at a cactus burr. He handled it very carefully to
guard against pricks and very daintily nibbled off, one by one, the tiny
daggers. When all were gone he split open the burr, sucked out the
juice, then nibbled up the soft center. So you see, even on this sandy
desert, Nature cares for all her children.

Mary was so pleased at the sight that she clapped her little hands in
glee and cried, "You dear, cute little thing!" But Mr. Rabbit was not
used to little girls. He looked up suddenly with fright in his tiny pink
eyes, then sprang away into the bushes.

Mary led Bepo around to a rock and clambered onto his back. As they
slowly stubbed along over the rough trail they surprised many a family
of rabbits and not a few were nibbling away at the prickly cactus burrs.

You can ride for miles over the desert without finding water, no lakes,
no rivers, no little stream even; and if it were not for the sweet
juices in the center of these burrs many small animals would die of

[Illustration: _Twilight on the Desert_]



MARY, with her mother, was taking a short stroll just before sundown. As
they were about to return they espied the largest and strangest lizard
they ever saw. It was nearly two feet long, with a perfectly round body,
a broad, flat head, short legs and a short, blunt tail. It was a chunky
little animal, all covered with a rough skin like an alligator and
dotted with square warts. It seemed very tame and followed Mary into the
tent where she made a warm nest for it in the corner near her bunk. It
was very fond of being petted and would lie and rub its head against
Mary's hand. When Father returned at night he was much pleased with the
strange pet and encouraged Mary to keep it, thinking, of course, that it
was some strange overgrown lizard. The question was, what should they
feed it? First they tried grubs and worms which were not touched; then
bread, meat, insects and all sorts of things, but nothing would he
taste. At last someone thought of eggs and that was apparently just what
the little fellow wanted, and that is what he lived on during the month
Mary had him for her pet.

At the end of that month big Ben, the foreman, came into Mary's tent to
repair the floor. The first Mary knew that anything was wrong was when
he gave a scream, calling to her to keep away from the tent. Her father,
nearby, ran to see what was the trouble; Ben pointed to the big lizard
and cried, "A gila monster, let us kill him quickly!" Mary and her
parents looked at him in surprise. They had never heard of such an
animal. Ben, however, had spent years on the desert and knew well its
dangers. But he had no gun and all he could do was to take a stick and
push the thing out of doors. Then a queer thing happened. When the hot
sun shone down on the gila monster (pronounced heela) it was no longer
tame and gentle, but would snap at anyone who came near and acted ugly,
continuing to hiss with his mouth wide open, on the lookout for the
first sign of an enemy.

A squirrel came out of the brush and ran a bit too near, when the big
lizard fastened its fangs in the poor little animal and turned over with
it in its mouth. The poison is in its lower jaw and when he turns over
it flows out. The squirrel died in a very few moments from the effects
of the poison in spite of the fact that Ben had meantime shot the gila
monster through the head.

Mary's parents were horrified when they realized what a dangerous pet
their little girl had been playing with for so many weeks. They
determined to seek Ben's advice hereafter before housing any more
strange animals.

But Mary was not in great danger for generally the little reptiles are
tame indoors, but out of doors in the sunshine they become cross and
ugly and their bite is more dangerous than that of a rattlesnake.

[Illustration: _Palm Springs_]



MOTHER was unused to the desert, so Father, having arranged his business
so he could leave it with Big Ben, the foreman, decided to take a
vacation and all were going over to Palm Springs for a few days.

Now, Palm Springs is in California near the great Mountain of San
Jacinto and it took a day and a half to get there. It was great fun for
Mary and Jack to get into a sleeping car and go speeding along over the
desert again. They recognized many of their old friends on the way, most
of whom they knew nothing about the last time they rode on a train. Then
it grew dark and they could no longer see out of the window.

The next morning after breakfast the conductor opened the door and
called out, "Palm Springs."

They hurriedly gathered together their bags and suitcases and left the

My! but wasn't it cold, and didn't the wind blow? Folks could hardly
stand straight and the wind was blowing right off the snow-capped
mountains that were all around the place, making it seem colder still.
Mary was hurried into the stage and before they had gone a mile their
faces were covered with sand blowing off the desert and you could never
have told that their clothes had ever been clean.

Palm Springs itself was five miles from the station, but suddenly the
wind stopped blowing and it was warm as summer, then pretty soon they
heard dogs barking and rode right through an Indian village.

Some of the squaws were making baskets, but most of them were out in the
fields working just like men. Imagine Mamma doing work like that. It was
interesting to see them, though, especially the little papooses being
carried in a little box fastened to the mother's back.

Just beyond was Palm Springs settlement itself, with lots of tents,
several houses, a store and a hotel. They stopped at the hotel, and
after dinner looked around the funny little store where they sold a
little of everything while a phonograph ground out wheezy music. They
visited the funny little cottages with their roofs and sides all covered
with big palm leaves instead of boards. Then they went up to the hot

There was a stream of water shooting up in the air part of the time, but
generally just bubbling up a little higher than the pond itself, which
was about six feet wide and ten feet long. It didn't look deep, but the
man at the springs told them the center shaft was sometimes as big as a
well and no one knew how deep. Father had been there before and he
wanted to take Mary into the spring, so with Jack they hired bathing
suits and went down. It was very funny. They thought, of course, it was
going to be deep, but the bottom was hard sand, and the water just
covered their ankles. Father took Mary in first, but the water did not
become deeper, but all at once the sand gave way. Father said it was
quick sand which somewhat frightened her, but he didn't seem scared so
she tried not to be. They went down and down into the sand which seemed
to tighten around them, when all at once, when Mary was up to her
shoulders, the spring gave a gurgle and tossed them out into shallow
water. Mary was frightened, but the rest laughed at her, especially
Jack, who was fourteen and thought he was almost a man. He said he could
walk around in it all right--the old water could not toss him up like
that. It was just bubbling over a little then, so he marched boldly in.
But when he felt the warm watery sand hugging him tighter and tighter
and sucking him down, he thought surely he was lost and wished he had
not bragged. But just then the spring gurgled louder and a high stream
shot up and in it was Cousin Jack, who landed safe and sound beside
them. I can tell you he was a happy boy.

They soon became accustomed to the idea and spent an hour of fun wading
in and being gently but firmly tossed out. Then they went back to Dr.
Murray's Hotel where Mother met them at the door. After a supper of
fresh eggs, nice biscuits, strawberries and cream, they retired to their
tent and when all were in bed Father rolled up the sides so they could
look out at the stars and breathe the fresh, warm air softly blown to
them by the gentle mountain breezes.

[Illustration: _The Road Runner_]



OF all Mary's pets she liked her road-runners best. Did you ever see a
road-runner? It makes its home on the desert where you would find it
impossible to get food, yet this little bird finds plenty and leads a
happy existence. He looks much like a pheasant with broad wings, a long,
broad tail and a crest that stands up very stiff and straight. The tail
is very flexible, and many people who have lived on the desert a long
time, say they can almost tell what the road-runner's thoughts are by
the way he holds his tail. If you can make friends with the little bird
and get near enough to it you can see the beautiful colors in its
feathery coat. The olive green wings are edged with white, and the crest
is of dark, deep blue. The bird is about twenty inches long, including
the tail.

A pair had built a nest in a clump of cactus a short distance from camp.
The first time Mary espied them was the day after her arrival. One came
up over a low ridge and stood looking at Mary with curiosity expressed
in its long, flexible tail. This, of course, aroused Mary's interest and
she hastened away to make friends. But it was not to be. Very quickly
the bird retreated to its cactus patch. But it came again the next day
and the next.

At first Mary was afraid of frightening it away, but one day it came as
she was eating a thick slice of bread and butter and she tossed it some
crumbs. As before, he scampered away to a safe distance, but there he
stopped. Mary stepped back and waited and pretty soon the little fellow
returned and rapidly ate up all the crumbs. He then gave a little toss
of his tail as if to say "thank you," and went home.

After this Mary and the little road-runner soon became fast friends, and
later Mary taught him that Cousin Jack was his friend, too. He soon
learned that the big horn that the cook blew three times a day meant
something to eat; and was always on hand to get his share. He would
always save a goodly part of this share and carry it home to his mate.

Mary and Jack each had a burro and often they would take short rides to
the nearby camps, for Jack was a steady, reliable boy and Mary's father
knew he would take care to see that no harm came to her.

The trail led by the road-runner's nest and whenever he saw the little
girl and the big boy coming along on their burros he would dart out into
the road and rush ahead at full speed. He could always keep ahead, too.
Try as they might Mary and Jack were unable to get ahead of him. When he
grew weary of the sport he would turn suddenly and hurry into the brush
until they had passed.

In some ways, though, he was a nuisance. Mary's uncle had sent them a
box containing a dozen chickens so that they could have some fresh eggs
as a change from the cold storage eggs commonly found in mining camps.
Now, the little road-runner would often try to slip into the chicken
yard when no one was looking. He would wait indifferently, promenading
up and down in a dignified manner until one of the hens cackled. He knew
this meant a fresh egg and he would deliberately march up, peck a hole
in the new laid egg and as deliberately swallow the contents.

[Illustration: _Colorado Desert_ (_Ocatilla in foreground_)]



ONE warm day in February a great lazy rattlesnake, over three feet long,
glided out from under a broad, flat rock. It slowly wound its way
through sagebrush and cactus until it found an open space where the hot
rays of the noonday sun fell uninterrupted.

Here it stretched itself out at full length, and after enjoying the
warmth of the sunshine for a little while, gradually grew drowsy and at
last fell asleep.

Exactly one hour later, a faint rustling sound was heard. From behind
the same rock peeped out an excited looking little creature. It was no
other than our little friend the road-runner. But why so agitated and
disturbed? Its little tail was bobbing up and down, and its beautiful
bluish-black crest was raised as high as possible. He had spied his
lifelong enemy, the rattlesnake.

Suddenly, as quickly as he came, he disappeared from sight. He was soon
back, carrying in his beak a cactus burr, which he placed on the ground
near the sleeping snake. Back and forth he went, each time returning
with a prickly burr. Before long he had a hedge entirely surrounding
poor, unsuspecting Mr. Snake. Then one more burr was brought and quietly
dropped on the snake's head.

Now, the skin of a snake is very sensitive and he immediately woke up.
Of course his first motion rubbed the delicate skin against the prickly
burr. He gave a vicious rattle and started to move away from the
troublesome thing. He struck at one side of the hedge, then another. He
grew more and more angry. He would try to poke his nose between the
burrs, but on being pricked by the sharp points, he would draw back and
try in another place. At last, overcome with anger and mortification,
he drove his poisonous fangs into his own body and soon died.

Mr. Road-runner, meanwhile, had retreated to a safe distance and was
much interested in all that was happening. When sure the snake was dead,
he cautiously darted up to the hedge and gave the dead snake a series of
sharp pecks with his long beak as an additional safeguard. Then he
settled down and ate a portion, carrying the best part away to his nest
to share with his mate.

Now, if that snake had kept his temper and not become excited, he might
have realized that by poking his nose under the burrs he could lift them
and get away with only a few scratches.

However, there are times when even boys and girls let their anger get
the best of them, so why should we expect more wisdom in a poor, foolish

Sometimes the snake doesn't kill itself, but only becomes tired out and
lies down motionless, when the little road-runner comes over and pecks
him to death. There are only a few animals, birds or insects who can
kill a rattlesnake, and the road-runner does this about as neatly as

[Illustration: _A Desert May Party_]



"WHY, Mamma, the very idea! Who ever heard of a desert May party?" I
hear some tiny girl exclaim, "A desert is all sand, if there were
flowers there it would not be desert at all."

Ah, yes, my dear, I used to think so, too, but to Mary it was no
surprise. She had spent the winter on the desert, had seen the heavy
rains, and afterwards had watched how rapidly the sturdy little green
shoots would push their way up through the hard unsympathetic soil.
Generally once a year the desert puts on its party dress and is dotted
with a gorgeous mass of blossoms.

The rains come at intervals in the winter and early spring and the
heavier and more frequent they are, the greater will be the flower
growth. The March and April rains this year had been heavy. There had
been days when Cousin Jack had come in with his raincoat dripping and
declared that he knew Mt. Kenyon would be washed away. Now and then a
cloudburst would strike terror to Mary's tender heart. She had gone out
when the weather cleared and watched the warm earth rise up and break,
while the little green things peeped through and took their first look
at the sun. The ground was always warm and it was amazing to see how
rapidly things would grow if you but gave them water.

The thing that now troubled Mary was the fact that she had no one to ask
to share her party. Of course there was Jack, but Jack was only a boy
and a May party, above all else, means girls.

It is strange what unexpected things happen at times, even in lonesome
mining camps. The thought had barely entered her little curly head when
she looked away over toward the mountains and saw a big, lumbering
wagon, drawn by four strong horses, come creeping down the road. Long
before it reached camp she could see that there were several people on
it and then she saw the children.

There were four of them, three little blue eyed girls with flaxen hair
and a slightly older brother with the same light hair but who looked at
the world through a pair of big, laughing brown eyes. They were staying
twenty miles up the valley with their parents who had charge of a small
cattle ranch, and Mother and children were having a holiday going to
town with Father. They stopped to water the horses and you may be sure
that it did not take long for the children to become acquainted. Not
many little folks live on the desert and playmates are almost unknown.
As it turned out, Father and Mother went on to town alone and left the
children to enjoy one another until their return on the following day.

Mary's mother was always planning surprises, so when she appeared with
two large lunch baskets heaped with goodies, Mary realized that this
would be a May day party unlike any she had ever before seen. Six burros
were kept ever ready in the corral and these were caught and saddled for
the children. Mother rode her Indian pony, a Christmas gift from Father.
As they passed the mill and wound up the trail by the main shaft of the
mine, the men were changing shift and as the cage swung up to the
surface the miners called a cheery good-bye, for they were very fond of

They ascended the next rise and what they saw was fairyland. They were
at the entrance of a canyon. A tiny stream of water ran in the center
and beside it wound a narrow trail. Foothills rolled up on either side
and the steep walls were a mass of flowers. Wild heliotrope, thistle,
poppies, white, pink and yellow gillias, long-leaved wild tobacco, with
its rich yellow blossoms, all were massed together and far more
beautifully arranged than the stiff gardens in Central Park.

"Aunt Louise," called Jack to Mamma, who was riding behind with the
little girls, "isn't that a campfire up on the next hill?"

"No, Jack," she replied, "not a fire, only a smoke tree. That is why it
received its name. The branches are grayish with tiny sage-green leaves
and at a distance it is often mistaken for a fire as it is all so
delicate and filmy."

By this time Jack had ridden ahead for a closer inspection of the bush
and startled us all by a little cry of pain.

"Be careful, Jack, it is also called the porcupine tree by the miners,"
called Mother, "the tiny leaves are nothing more than very sharp and
prickly spines."

"Why is it that so many desert plants have stickers and thorns?" asked
Tom, the rancher's son.

"Why, can't you see for yourself, Tom?" called back Jack, "if they
weren't sharp and prickly all these little desert animals would tear
them up when they were young and tender and they would never grow to be
full sized."

"Yes," said Mother, "it is simply the way that nature protects her young
so that it will not be destroyed in infancy. There are still other
protections necessary on the desert for the hot sun would otherwise kill
many plants. A large number are covered with a soft down which is really
a mass of tiny air cells that keep the stems and leaves cool and protect
them from the hot sun's rays."

"And see, there is a creosote bush, its rich green leaves are covered
with a kind of varnish which keeps them cool the same as the hairs would
do. See how the recent rains have brought out a mass of blossoms at the
tip of every branch, what a delicate flower, held in a pale green cup.
And there is another smoke tree, nearer the water and so it has
blossomed earlier, every point has a gorgeous purple flower."

"See the funny bunch of sticks over here, Mamma," called Mary, "they
look like a lot of candles sticking up."

"And that is just what they are called, my dear, ocatilla, or candle
cactus. They have no leaves for the greater part of the year, but after
the rains they leave out and are soon covered with those beautiful
scarlet bells."

"Yes," answered Mary, "they look like some beautiful winged bird just
about to fly away. And how tall the candles are, lots higher than our
tents back in camp."

It would take too long to tell you about all the desert beauties that
the children saw, they all agreed that nothing as beautiful was ever
seen "back East" where it rains half the time.

At noon they sat down under a clump of mesquite and ate the splendid
luncheon. The pure fresh air had made them ravenously hungry. The
mesquite was a low, stocky tree which did not grow high but spread out
in every direction, branches thick with foliage.

"Why don't the old tree grow up higher and not bother about having so
many side branches?" asked Jack.

Then Mother told him. "Why, can't you see?" she asked. "The sun is so
hot that it kills the tiny buds on the end of the branch; but the tree
is determined to grow, just the same, so it sends out side buds, where
the sun's rays are not as hot and the short, stubby tree is the result."

"At any rate it makes a fine shade and that is all we need just now,"
answered Jack.

They rested under the wide spreading branches until the sun shone a bit
less fiercely, then they slowly rode homeward through the beautiful
blossoms, arriving just at dusk, very hungry, a little tired, but happy
in the thought that they had visited one of the strangest and most
beautiful corners of the earth.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

The original text did not contain a table of contents. One was created for
this text.

Khaki is spelled kakhi in this text.

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Little Tales of The Desert, by 
Ethel Twycross Foster


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